Bringing Chalk to a SmartBoard Fight

16 Oct, 2013

 

An institution of higher learning must strive to provide a continuously improving level of education to its students. McGill has unfortunately been falling short. Between the annual zealous postings of the QS rankings to the continued sale of “Harvard: America’s McGill” shirts, McGill administration is desperately trying to maintain and promote the school’s elitist image. But publicity moves and cute T-shirts are not the means to true academic innovation.

Our classrooms are falling apart, and the lessons themselves are bland and interchangeable. In order to maintain its status as the pinnacle of Canadian education, McGill needs to make some serious changes. If more funds are allocated to technological improvements within our classrooms and facilities, we will gain access to countless new resources, allowing for inventive new curricula and a more engaging and attractive academic environment. It is time for a technological makeover.

The standard class experience at McGill involves sitting in a large lecture hall, listening to a professor talk for anywhere from one to three hours, and frantically taking as many notes as you can. You desperately hope that you catch everything, and that if you miss something it won’t be on the midterm. Why should such a dry learning method be the norm? However, these dry lectures have become the standard because most McGill classrooms lack the innovative technology required to branch out into more diverse and inventive teaching styles.

McGill administration tends to focus their attention on publicity moves to bolster McGill’s external image, rather than effectively address fundamental classroom-level issues. With updated classroom resources, which would allow for more leading-edge teaching methods, McGill’s image would improve to an extent greater than any publicity move could ever accomplish.

Signs of this potential improvement can already be seen in certain buildings on campus; the Wong and Trottier science buildings are terrific examples of effective modern infrastructure, as is the Bronfman building. When asked for a comment, MUS VP Internal Aaron Ehgoetz remarked, “The infrastructure of the Bronfman Building is something very unique at McGill. All the classrooms have been recently renovated and are appointed with the latest technology necessary for students to be competitive with others around the world.” Now it’s time for the rest of McGill’s facilities to get a facelift as well.

A number of McGill professors still manage to get creative with their methods. From stock simulations to reenactments to literally everything in Underground Economy, bright spots of unconventional and imaginative learning do appear on the McGill curriculum. Those of us who have seen these teachers and experienced this small-scale innovation know that more can be done than that which is currently the standard.

So why is it taking so long for this potential to be recognized and cultivated? Well, only so much can be done without some drastic overhauls. When it is a daily struggle even to get the old and outdated projectors to cooperate, professors have to make do with the limited tools they have at their disposal. When asked about this growing issue, political science Professor Mark Brawley commented, “We’ve got many more students than we can easily accommodate, given limited resources in terms of graders and TAs, as well as rooms.  If technological advances can help us serve more students without lowering the quality of teaching, then we should be harnessing them.”

Technological innovation is spreading across the world as a principal focus. In Europe, an EU-funded project called iTEC (Innovative Technologies for Engaging Classrooms) seeks to provide widespread change across European classrooms. iTEC is a project in which European Schoolnet works alongside education ministries, technology providers, and research organizations to construct a long-term plan for the implementation of new technologies and learning strategies in the classroom. iTEC is essentially working to redefine the role of technology in the classroom.

The iTEC project began in 2010, and has already undergone a number of cycles of design testing. With iTEC reaching out to over 1,000 classrooms to implement these new strategies and technologies, McGill is falling behind in the technological revolution.

In iTEC’s findings report from their first three cycles of testing, it is stated that 90 percent of teachers saw marked improvement in creative and collaborative skills among their students. In fact, 20 percent of teachers saw significantly increased student motivation. The report identifies such qualities as “21st century skills.” Are these not exactly the sorts of abilities which we, as one of the best postsecondary institutions in the world, should seek to harness and develop in students?

While iTEC is ambitiously storming ahead with new and inventive classroom strategies, McGill finds itself stuck in old practices, using outdated computers and 30-year-old curricula. If we want to maintain our elite global status, we need to follow iTEC’s lead and invest in some serious technological reforms to keep up.

The current student generation has grown up in an age of technology. We have lived our lives with computers, cell phones, iPods, and a host of other new types of tech. These various tools inevitably become entrenched in the world around us, and businesses embrace them as a means of modernization. McGraw-Hill, for example, one of the most commonly used textbook publishers, has gone a step farther than simply creating online textbooks: in January, the publishing company announced its SmartBook for college students.

The SmartBook, an online tool available for various devices, essentially acts as a virtual tutor. Using the data collected based on how the “tutors” adapt to students’ needs, McGraw-Hill can see where students struggle the most, and create a dialogue with the authors of the textbooks to suggest improvements. This dialogue allows for textbook authors to better adapt to address a student’s struggles and improve their results. If we used similar adaptive technology in the classroom, instructors would be able to better gauge which areas in the curriculum need more focus, and which lessons should be modified to better suit student’s learning styles.

McGill is supposed to be one of the best universities in the world. So why aren’t we pursuing these sorts of innovative projects? Why should we stick with what has become an outdated norm, rather than embrace new possibilities and use technology to upgrade and improve our learning system? It is clear from the findings of iTEC that the use of new technology in the classroom can yield some fantastic results. We should embrace these opportunities for improvement, rather than remain stuck in the past.

If we want to be competitive in a world which is increasingly reliant on technology, we must implement this technology at the most fundamental level: the classroom. Without some technological innovation, lectures will continue to be dry, McGill’s academic system will become increasingly outdated, and our elitist image which the administration works so hard to maintain will slowly but surely evaporate into thin air.

The worst thing we can do for a school like McGill is to claim that everything is perfect when it is in fact far from it. Unless some investments are made in the improvement of classroom and facility resources across campus, we will no longer be able to truthfully take pride in the claim that we go to the best university in Canada. iTEC has demonstrated the power of technology in the classroom; substantial technological improvements do not only allow for more inventive curricula, but also better enable students’ learning. However, if we stick with our ancient projectors and run-down facilities, McGill will soon fall behind in its ability to effectively educate its students.

With certain professors already trying to break away from the status quo of McGill lectures, just imagine how much more could be done with expanded technological resources. McGill must take advantage of new technologies to fuel progress in its academic approach; otherwise, like the projectors still being used in Leacock, McGill’s global prestige might become a thing of the past.

 

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

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